Monthly Archives: January 2015

Photo Series: 16 Doors of Ilha de Moçambique (+Extras)

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Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique Island) is located in Nampula province off northern Mozambique, between the Mozambique Channel and Mossuril Bay. The island is quite small (about 3 km long and 200-500 meters wide), but it is home to a rich history as it was the country’s first capital (now Maputo) prior to 1898. The island is glowing with tightly packed buildings, architecture unique to the Portuguese colonial era, and beautiful sights of the Indian Ocean. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Mozambique’s fastest growing tourist destinations, complete with small cafes, hostels, and water activities (Lonely Planet).

Today, a friend and I travel across the 3.8 km bridge to access the island for our very first time. The island is accessible by car, motorcycle, bicycle, or by foot, and the bridge stretches out across the water with beautiful views of the island ahead. We are told by a couple who are joining us on our journey to the island that it’s home to about 14,000 people, has delicious food ranging from seafood to Italian cuisine, and it’s possible to spot dolphins and other wildlife swimming off the coast. Needless to say, we are excited.

We walk around the city in early afternoon to take in the environment of the colorful city, speak with locals about its rich history, and capture images of some of its architecture’s most beautiful elements: the doors. Because of the island’s size, the buildings are constructed closely together, creating a labyrinth of alleyways, complete with door after door of unique design. The first door we come across (above) turns out to be my favorite. The rest are complete with their own unique design.

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This door is spotted inside a backpacker’s hostel, where the interior resembles much of the outside city with exposed walls, access to an open-air roof with furniture and views of the city, and hidden rooms complete with netted beds for visitors.

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The bright blue doors of the island remind me of the doors in Namapa with their eye-catching colors displayed against the chipped and destroyed stone walls. Much of the city is in this shape, as many of the buildings are starting to fall apart due to the environment and time.

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The yellow. It’s all about the yellow with this door. Many of the buildings are painted with yellow that has since started to chip and fall from the stone.

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We lose ourselves in the city as the day’s light starts to fade. The island is without power because of the floods that struck the northern part of the country. Generators begin to start throughout the city, and we find our way along the main street to an area with small shops, complete with buzzing lights, cold drinks, and music that closes the day and welcomes the dark night.

Extras

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While there are countless doors throughout the island, we also photograph sights around the island, including one of the country’s earliest hospital (above), the many beaches, and inside the Palace and Chapel of São Paulo, built in 1610 as a Jesuit College and eventually used as the Governor’s residence, now a museum (with an entrance fee of 100MT).

Sights Around the Island

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Inside the Governor’s Mansion

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Questions? Comments? Contact me!

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Long Read: On Development in a Developing Country

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(Above: a vendor’s shop along the coast in the city of Pemba in the province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique)

The clouds above begin to close in on the remaining sky. He approaches from across the road, and while we haven’t spoken much before, today he wears an inquisitive look as I hand-wash my laundry in the quickly fading, morning light.

“Good morning, Benjamin,” I say, arms deep inside a bucket filled with soapy water. “How is work today?”

“Normal,” he responds, sitting down next to me with seemingly more to say. If I were to guess, I would say he is about 17 or 18 years old. After a couple minutes in silence, he continues. “What is like in America?”

“Well, what do you mean exactly?” I respond.

“Do you have a lot of work there?” he asks, his eyes locking on to mine, revealing a little more about the concerns that seem to be clouding his thoughts.

“Yeah, of course,” I reply quickly. “We have lots of jobs and opportunities there.”

He seems to process the response like someone receiving information she or he already knows. He nods his head and lets out a soft “hm” before returning to silence.

“Why do you ask?” I say, sensing that he isn’t satisfied with the answer to his question. “Do you think that there is a lot of work in Mozambique?”

“No,” he responds quietly. “I went to school here as a child and a teenager, but now there is nothing else for me to do but work in the store.”

“What do you want to do?” I ask.

“I want to be a geologist,” he responds, lighting up a bit. “I want to study rocks and the land, but where am I going to study this? Mozambique doesn’t have the opportunities, and I can’t afford to go to another country. Also, I have family here. I want to do more.” He says this with elbows on his knees, leaning forward in his seat and looking beyond my fence to the neighboring shop where he works. “But there’s nothing more to do here in Mozambique.”

By this point, I have lifted my arms from the soapy water and rested my elbows on my knees, turning my attention toward his worries. I know what I am supposed to say: Try hard and you can accomplish great things…push through the barriers and you can accomplish great things…search out the opportunities and you can accomplish great things.

Instead, we sit together in silence as the light fades away, the sky closes, and it is replaced with dark clouds. The rain begins to fall, splashing inside my bucket.

More Research is Needed

The team is silent as they type away on their keyboards in our office, entering statistics about the abandonment rates of HIV treatment, the number of children infected with the disease through vertical transmission, and how many people were tested during the past year. As the new guy, I’m relegated to the position of fly on the wall.

They are preparing for a meeting with the rest of the members of the ICAP team in our province’s capital the following week. Since it is the end of the year, they are required to submit the statistics to show the current progress of the program in the country.

“Our numbers are a little worse compared to other ICAP programs in the country,” Santino says to the rest of the group. “But they’re looking a little better from last year’s numbers.”

ICAP is an international non-governmental organization (INGO) from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health with one main goal: “to improve the health of families and communities” (About ICAP). They’re accomplishing this by addressing major health challenges and working to improve health systems in more than 3,300 sites across 21 countries. In Mozambique, they work to reduce the burden from HIV and AIDS.

The team works with the local health system to identify patients who have abandoned treatment, search for them in the community, and successfully re-integrate them into the health system with ongoing treatment. Usually, the problems occur during the latter.

“We’ll improve them for next year,” Cristobal says. “We have to.” Cristobal is a trained psychologist from Maputo. He lives here – more than 1,500 km from his family, including a new daughter – with his team members, a doctor and a monitoring and evaluation specialist who also have families and friends in Maputo.

While the rest of the team returns to silence, I open my computer and start to search through years of research into HIV interventions, behavioral trends, and health statistics for the country. Much of the research comes from other INGOs that are scattered throughout the country: USAID, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and World Vision, to name a few.

Since the country gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, organizations and researchers have worked tirelessly to improve the overall health of an already weak and damaged system, especially following a decade-long civil war that left the country in pieces. This work is evident through countless articles on piloted health programs, quantitative and qualitative findings regarding health improvement, and insights into behavioral trends that are preventing the adoption of healthy behaviors, especially for children.

However vast the amount of research and findings I read, they all come to the same conclusion: more research is needed. I’m familiar with this phrase after two years in a public health program that required an intimate knowledge of research prose. Basically, information has been collected, certain battles are better understood, but the war rages on.

I excuse myself from the silent typing session to walk around the grounds of the hospital. Across from my team’s office is the maternity ward, where each day a large group of women arrive early in the morning to receive much needed access to HIV testing, nutrition support, and medication. Technical staff leads palestras (health talks) each morning in front of the interested women, usually including a true-to-size model of a penis, a condom demonstration, and an abundance of laughs and gasps from the crowd.

Today, I find myself standing at the back of the open-air waiting room for patients who are receiving service, collecting medication, or waiting for a family member. The waiting rooms in Mozambique are notorious for their long wait times and crowded spaces. This one is no different.

I sit down in the back on a long bench that holds a mother and her child on one end and a man who has his arms folded across his chest and his head down, apparently in mid-sleep. I allow the environment to surround me. I lean forward, rest my elbows on my knees, and run my hands through my hair and wonder to myself what my role will be in this system. The research comes to mind. More research is needed. More…is needed. More

Força da Familia (Strength of the Family)

“Wake up, Aleksi,” she says with a soft, warm voice from behind me. “You are sleeping in too late.” She pokes her head in through my bedroom door (or her bedroom door) and waits until I start to move about before closing the door.

It takes me a few seconds to remember where I am. I look around the room and see the familiar blue table with one chair that my host father carried in from the main living area when I first moved in. The shiny, metallic cylinder that filters my water for drinking is set up on top of the table with the spout hanging just slightly over the edge. On the cement floor is a tin pot with a lid containing boiled water from the night before, since cooled.

I leave my room to find my host mother clearing the dishes and pans from the dinner the night before: fish, rice, and fresh bread from the town’s bakery. She is handing the dirty dishes to her daughter, Helen, who will carry them outside to wash them.

“Take Aleksi with you,” she says to her daughter. “He needs to see how to clean plates.”

Helen leads me outside into the bright, morning light of Namaacha, a small town located two hours outside of the country’s capital of Maputo. The town is known for its cool weather and gorgeous views of rolling hills, dotted with homes and small shops. It’s home for two months as we prepare to live on our own at our permanent sites.

“Aleksi! Good morning!” my host father yells from across the yard. “Do you want to help me make some blocks today?” He stands feet deep wearing swimming shorts and a tank top in a pile of cement-sand mixture used for creating blocks for construction. Standing next to him, collecting his breath, is a young-looking man holding a shovel in his gloved hands.

“I want to learn,” I yell back to my host father, “but first I need to help Helen with the dishes!” Helen is still standing next to me, a pile of dishes in her hands as she smiles.

“Okay! After!” he replies.

Using two buckets, one with soapy, bubbly water and the other with clean water, Helen demonstrates the Mozambican process of putting the dirty plates in the soapy water, scrubbing them with her hands or a sponge, and resting them in the clean water. She checks for understanding. I nod. She demonstrates again. I nod. One more time.

During this time, my host mother has already started a fire to heat the water that we will all use to bathe ourselves, collected and lit the charcoal on the stove to start preparing breakfast, started to cut the vegetables in her hands used to flavor the meal, and filled three buckets to prepare to teach me how to wash my dirty laundry.

First, I join my host father who is in the process of making cement blocks that will be used to expand his family’s home. Using a shovel, he collects a large pile of the mixture, places it inside a hollow, metal container set atop a short stump until the mixture overflows over the top, and he uses the flat side of the shovel with much force to flatten the cement block into place. He demonstrates this a few times and hands the shovel to me.

I take a few swings at the mixture, which ends up flying through the air and collecting on the clothes of everyone in a small radius of the stump. A couple more attempts, and he smiles as he reaches for the shovel and says the water is ready for my laundry.

My host mother demonstrates the correct method of cleaning laundry in Mozambique. Using three buckets, one with soapy, bubbly water and two with clean water, she uses her hands to rub the dirty laundry with her knuckles in the soapy water. Once she feels she has covered all surfaces, she rings it out, puts it in the next bucket, rings it out again, puts it in the final bucket, rings it out, and places it on the clothes line to dry. I’m impressed with the sheer force of her arms and hands as she washes the clothes.

My host father finishes building the blocks, and he enters the house to take a bath. He will rest for the remainder of the day. My host mother continues the day by finishing breakfast, carting water on her head and a wheelbarrow from the pump in the next neighborhood over, washing the clothes of her family, preparing lunch then dinner, and ending the day with dinner with the family, a hot bath, and finally rest.

At dinner, I acknowledge the amount of work they both do during the day. “You both work very hard,” I add to the conversation. “I have a lot of respect for both of you.” I fumble through the Portuguese, but they understand.

“It’s nothing, Aleksi,” my mother responds.

“It’s our lives here,” my father adds. “We have to work hard to take care of our family and our community. We cannot sit around and do nothing. We have to help however we can.”

My host sisters, including Helen, and host brother are all sitting on a bench near the dinner table eating along with us. They nod along with their father’s statements, seemingly seeing a similar future of hard work and giving back to the family and community they love.

A Lesson in More

I lean back against the bench in the waiting room of the hospital where I had been sitting for the past thirty minutes. The mother and her child have since left, and the man is now awake, talking and joking with another man seated next to him.

I look around the waiting room once more and see the faces of the patients. It’s difficult not to see the faces of my host family in each person with whom I interact. They’re the ones, after all, who taught me everything I know about Mozambique, its culture, and its core.

While research is plenty, the more I was looking for lay in the faces of the people surrounding me. I decide to focus my attention on having conversations with as many people in the community as possible, to both learn more about health in the community but also to better understand the mindsets and beliefs of my new home.

The following day, using the training and experiences I gained during the completion of my public health program, I create a survey that I will use out in the community to collect information on the health of Namapa. The survey has ten questions, complete with demographics, thoughts about health issues, and ideas about where people receive health information in the community.

It’s a warm, sunny day, and I walk onto the main street of Namapa, where people are passing in plenty. I understand that this moment is the first of many that will guide me and direct me throughout the next two years at site.

With the research and the strength of my host family in mind, I approach the first person.

“Good morning!” I say as softly and warmly as possible. “How are you today?”

Moving the Immovable Wall Forward

Benjamin and I are still silent as we sit outside my house, but the overhanging roof now covers us. The rain continues to fall, but the clouds are starting to dissipate. I’ve abandoned the task of washing my clothes and instead think of how to best address his concerns.

“Benjamin, I don’t know what to say,” I tell him. “I have no answer for you.”

“It’s okay,” he says. “I am happy that I am able to work here. I have family. I have friends here. All is well. But I do like having conversations with you. I hope we can talk more.”

“Of course we can,” I respond. “That’s really all I can offer, and I’m always able to talk.”

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This post is in response to a friend’s request to write up an article or post about my thoughts on development in Mozambique. While the way in which I describe my experiences is meant to require interpretation, I also want to direct interested minds to other articles and research on the idea of development in a developing world, especially in regards to Peace Corps and foreign aid:

Peace Corps Website

  • Provides Mission, Fast Facts, History, and Reports

“Reconsidering the Peace Corps” from the Brookings Institute (December 2003)

  • An older article about improving the Peace Corps, but it provides a good overview of the history of the program, its main goals, and the future direction of the program.

The Divide Between Developed and Developing Countries by The Levin Institute

  • A closer look and explanation at the gap between developed and developing countries, including problems of development, case studies, and strategies for the future.

The World Bank Development Indicators for Mozambique

  • Hard statistics on the development indicators, current statistics, and global economic prospects

United Nations Mozambique Key Development Indicators

  • History of Mozambique, Development Context in Mozambique, and National Development Goals
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Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Mozambique

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I’ll be the first to admit. Before leaving the states to start my Peace Corps service, I had to rely on Google and the thoughts from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) to build a somewhat accurate image of my new home. Upon receiving an invitation to the country, my good friend and roommate at the time who had served in Malawi nearly hit the roof in excitement for my placement. “The beaches!” he would yell. “You got a beautiful site!”

He was right, but everything I assumed about Mozambique (and the collective Africa) was quickly replaced with interesting revelations about the people, the culture, and the landscape. I realize that it’s very difficult to accurately summarize an entire country into a handful of points, but here are ten things you (I) didn’t know about Mozambique, from the not-so serious to the serious reality of a growing nation:

Kung-fu Movies are National Treasures

Travel the country in any large bus or sit in a family’s home on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll find yourself watching, with much focus and attention, a random kung-fu movie, usually starring Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jean-Claude Van Damme. During my homestay with a very traditional, conservative Mozambican family, I walked from my room to find my mother, still wearing her capulana (traditional cloth) wrapped around her with remnants of breakfast, and my father at full attention watching Jackie Chan take down a gang. Even though the film was dubbed in English, my family was fully engrossed in the action.

Dance Music is the Soundtrack of Life

While traditional Mozambican music often gets its time at parties and local bars, American and Mozambican dance music dominates the scene with all its thumps and unintelligible lyrics. Unlike the states where the party eventually ends on a Sunday to prepare for a busy week of work, Mozambicans celebrate life every day and into the wee hours of the morning.

Facebook, WhatsApp are in the Hands of Everyone

Mention Facebook or WhatsApp to a Mozambican, and they’ll be quick to start singing a popular song that turns the popular apps’ names into verbs (“Facebookar me, WhatsAppar me”). With the boom in availability of cellular phones and reliable networks, the apps are popular among the teenagers as well as adults. Already I’ve had teenagers ask me if I’m on Facebook, and my quick response to them is, “What’s Facebook?”

The Phrase “I’m Hot” Does Not Translate Well

A friend and I were standing beneath the shade of a tall tree as we hitchhiked our way down the country to visit close friends for the holidays. While waiting for a car to pass by and take us on our way, I noticed a Mozambican woman walking toward us. Eager to fill the time with a good conversation, I asked her how she’s doing. She responded that she was well, and asked in return how I was doing. I responded, “Estou quente” or “I’m hot,” at which she laughed and walked away. Confused, I turned to my friend. “You just said that you’re sexually aroused,” she said. I swore to never speak again.

There Are More Than 40 Languages Spoken in the Country

While Portuguese is the national language, there are more than 40 local languages spoken across the country, including emakhuwa (the largest language group), cisena, xichangana, , elomwe, and others. The majority of Mozambicans speak more than one language, with some being able to speak three or more languages. In Namapa, the local language of emakhuwa dominates. My first week in the community, I was given five minutes at a community meeting to introduce myself. After speaking for five minutes in Portuguese, the crowd was silent, no reactions. I ended the speech with “kuxukuru” (“thank you” in the local language), and the group erupted with applause, laughing, and shaking my hand. It’s true when they say that language and integration is key to everything in Peace Corps.

It’s Improper to Offer Anything with Your Left Hand

When first entering the country, staff and other volunteers give you a rundown of tips for phrases and gestures that are culturally accepted. One of the more difficult customs to get used to is offering everything, whether it’s money in the market, a dinner plate at the table, or a handshake, with your right hand. When receiving something, it’s proper to receive with either the right hand or both hands extended. On various occasions, I’ve been called out by friends (rarely Mozambicans) for improperly handing something.

The Northern Half of the Country is Predominantly Muslim

While Christian communities are the largest groups in the country, the second most prevalent religious group is Muslim. Speak to any volunteer who is living in the north, and they’ll mention being able to hear the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, spoken through loudspeakers at a nearby mosque. My house is situated right next door to a mosque, and (when we have power) the first prayer will be around 4:00 a.m. and the last around 5:30 p.m.

Polygamy is Culturally Accepted

Being a single male in the country has brought with it many inquisitive looks and confusion from Mozambicans who are constantly asking about my wife or girlfriend back in the United States. “Wait,” they continue, “you don’t have a wife…or a girlfriend?” They are quick to tell me that I need to find two or three wives in Mozambique. It is common for men to have their first wife and then a second or third. Because women spend most of the time taking care of the children in the household, husbands are working outside the house and often take multiple wives, especially if their work requires them to travel a far distance.

Corruption is Experienced and Tolerated Each Day

A few months back I was traveling back from visiting a friend in the province north of me. I was tucked in the bed of an open-back truck that was transporting people down the highway. Along the highway are stops called controls, where police officers will look over car documentation, drivers’ licenses, etc. The government in Mozambique is notorious for the amount of corruption that is allowed, and the problem comes from the top and umbrellas down to the routine traffic police officers. At every control, the driver is expected to provide a bribe to the police officer in order to pass. Usually the bribe (about 100MT) is disguised as a generous offering for the officer to buy a soda or juice. Drivers are irritated by this ongoing system but are powerless to limit it.

Collective Caretaking Defines the Country

Unlike the United States where individualism dominates, Mozambique and its people participate in an environment of collective caretaking. It starts young at childhood, when neighbors, friends, and family will all help in the raising of a child. It’s not rare to see a small child running and playing throughout a neighborhood or having lunch or dinner in the household of a neighbor. The Mozambican people are welcoming, warm, and always willing to provide help or assistance to another member of the neighborhood or community. Out of everything I’ve learned so far, being here has strengthened my own sense of family back home, and I only hope I can foster such a way of life myself.

Did any of these surprise you? Comment below! Questions? Contact me!

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Photo Series: 8 Doors of Namapa

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The clash of worlds between the Mozambique before independence and the country after is visible through countless lenses, but none more striking than the architecture. The structural remains of colonial Portugal are still intact today, and, while slowly succumbing to the land’s erosive ways, they provide a colorful glimpse into another time and make for one gorgeous walk to work.

Today I’ve decided to take a walk through my community and capture only a small piece of this structural landscape, but also my favorite: the doors. Whether a freshly painted entryway to a local loja (store), or a locked and forgotten passage tucked away down an alley, the doors in Namapa, to this observer, are as unique and beautiful as the country itself. Each door has a story, and hopefully through these photos, the stories are brought more to life.

Blue Symmetry
The above photo is the inspiration for this post. I pass this building each day on my way to Saul’s bar. The symmetry of the windows and the bright blue door always grab my eye. While taking the photo, a group of men on break for lunch are staring at me, wondering of what and why I am taking a photo.

Old Bread

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This door belongs to a small building next to the building above. The writing above the door indicates it’s an old bread (pão) store, long-since shuttered. Bread is a staple item in Mozambique. No matter which province or town you find yourself in, fresh bread is available from padarias (bread stores) or from vendors on the street. Nothing quite reminds me of home here like soft bread and a cold Coca-Cola, which…

Coca-Cola Red

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Ask anyone about the availability of this soda in the country, and they’re bound to respond with either despise for the company’s vast reach or a giant smile, because the soda is sold everywhere (read: everywhere). Organizations have even started partnering with the soda giant to distribute much needed medication in hard to reach areas of the country through the company’s delivery trucks.

The Window

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Many doorways look like this as I walk through the community. The entryways open up into large, shared spaces for houses or apartments. They’re a mysterious window into the lives of the residents who live within its view.

Frelimo Proud

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During election season (and still) this building is used as the Frelimo headquarters for the community, hosting large political rallies, motorcycle brigades, and a constant supply of Frelimo swag. Frelimo has since won the election, but the remains of the campaign remain…

Lagoon Blue Green

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When it comes to colors here, this does it for me. I pass this door on my way to the market, and the color reminds me of a lagoon in the province of Inhambane, where I celebrated the holidays with close friends. The Frelimo poster falling apart in the corner reminds me that my time here is quickly running out.

Little Rise

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From the looks of it, this gate (or half a gate) stands tall; however, the gate is about to my chest and leads to a staircase for higher apartments.

Dragão Negro

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Finally, a door that I pass on my way to the market. It’s one of my favorites because of the branding of one of Namapa’s local spray painting gangs, Black Dragon, and the touch of yellow. I am able to spot the group’s name on various buildings around the town, and each time I whisper it to myself and smile at the world in which I’ve found myself.

Questions? Contact me!

Weekend Reads, January 17-18

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Andrew Moseman

Guinea worm eradication is a campaign I’ve been following since beginning graduate school in Atlanta, home of The Carter Center, in 2012. Since then, I’ve heard from countless members of the team on the ground, visited the Center to learn more about the campaign, and think of my graduate school roommate who left the states shortly after graduation last year to work with the program in Sierra Leone. IFLScience has a good write-up about the progress.

On Hope, Cynicism, & Bananas

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I’m tucked comfortably in the back of a four-door truck barreling down the bumpy main street of Namapa. On my left and right are the far reaches of the market, where onlookers watch as our truck grabs and spits mud and dirt following the day’s rain. The driver and his companion are deep in conversation, and I’m leaning halfway out the window, smiling and waving at staring kids and teenagers. Most of them respond, while others continue to stare, give quick, short glances, or throw a gesture that makes the group of them laugh and run away.

When Steven asked me to come along to visit the banana farm, I was elated. I had only heard of the farm from friends who work it, the lady who sells the bananas under a large, shaded tree near the hospital, and, of course, Steven, who works there frequently.

Steven is a German-born, mechanical engineer and has lived in Mozambique for more than 20 years now with his Mozambican wife. He seems to appreciate the quiet, peaceful nature of the countryside and earning a living from what he does best: repairing large, mechanical equipment, mainly for the area farms. After numerous personal videos of tractors and various explanations of the intricate mechanics of generators, motorcycles, and engines, it’s clear that he’s a passionate, educated guy.

Riding shotgun is an Indian store (loja) owner, Saul, who is known for his generosity (offering his diesel-powered generator to the community to recharge phones and check in with loved ones during this time of floods), and loud, hard-to-confuse motorcycle with painted letters along the gas tank that read “Big Boss.” He’s one of the kindest men I’ve met in Mozambique, and he and Steven often help each other on various projects. Today, Saul offers to help Steven load a generator on the truck at the banana farm.

The banana farm is about 20 kilometers west of Namapa. I only know this because of my familiarity with the national highway that runs north and south (currently cut in half by the floods). While Steven is relatively quick in getting us to the farm, the distance allows ample time for conversation.

“This landscape is beautiful!” I shout from the back seat. “I want to climb one of these mountains some day.” The mountains I’m referring to are my province’s abundant amount of inselbergs, large rock formations that rise, seemingly randomly, from the earth and tower over the countryside.

“The only reason this road exists is because of the farm,” Saul answers as a response. “Once the farm is gone, the roads won’t be taken care of, and they’ll turn to shit, just like everything else here.”

Sensing a touch (or a full-on punch) of cynicism, I decide to push him a little bit on it. “You have to believe that Moz is heading in the right direction as far as development,” I respond. “You both have lived here for a while, you both work in the community…it’s your home.”

“Listen, Alek,” Steven jumps in. “You haven’t been here long enough to see what it’s really like.” Saul nods along and seems to agree with Steven’s statement.

“Okay, and how exactly is it?” I ask.

“They take and take some more,” he responds, “without giving anything in return. Look at this factory here…” Steven points to a factory in the distance. At one point the building seemed to be in perfect shape, but now the windows are missing boards, the paint has become a similar shade to the green and brown surrounding the building, and the road leading to the factory and sign along the main road are overgrown and illegible.

“You’re trying to tell me that a broken down factory is an example of your explanation of the Mozambican people?”

“They don’t take care of anything,” Steven responds. “They don’t know how to repair anything, and after a couple years, it’s all gone to shit. They don’t know their asses from their faces.”

A Partnership
Selena is busy in the back of the house preparing a feast for the celebration. All of the traditional Mozambican dishes are on the menu: chicken, pork, potatoes, potato salad, rice, xima, salad. She is helped by two of our neighbors who sit and wait for direction from Selena, the head of the household after Steven.

I ask if I can help with any of the preparation, but I’m quickly sent from the back of the house to the veranda to sit with Steven and the guests for the party: Oscar, a large, English-speaking Mozambican man who works at the banana farm, and Denise, a Brazilian-born woman who helps the farm with programmatic details.

“You know she’s going to play the song tonight,” I say to the group.

“I bet we even hear it more than once,” Denise responds, and we all laugh at a shared understanding of what the birthday girl will want at the end of the night.

Oscar tells me of his time working in Colorado on a farm, living with an American family, and learning English as best as possible. His English is very good, and he’s even wearing a hat of an American football team. We share a laugh over the fact that I’m currently living in the house where he used to reside. I ask him if it is his initials scrawled in the cement in the bathroom. He says no, and we both wonder aloud about the identity.

Selena comes out on the veranda followed by her friends with plates of food, and we spend the next hour in near silence huddled over plates of food, swatting away flies, and testing the (very) spicy puri-puri. Or to the Mozambicans, just kind of spicy.

As plates lay empty on laps, Steven interrupts the small conversations to wish his wife a happy birthday. She takes a seat from clearing the dishes, and we hear the story of how Steven moved to the country from South Africa, started to date Selena, and for the past 20 years, they’ve shared a life together that has included sickness, a shared love of 80’s music, and a mutual desire to live a calm, peaceful life in Mozambique.

“She’s my best friend,” he continues. “She’s my lover. She’s my partner.”

The group releases a sounding “aw,” as we raise our glasses, bottles, cups to cheer Selena on her birthday. Just as the clock hits midnight, the group is on their feet and dancing to her favorite song of all time: “Africa” by Toto.

Generosity Obscured
We pull up to the banana farm as the factory disappears behind us. We are greeted by a friendly Mozambican man sitting atop a large, red tractor caked with dirt and mud (both the man and the machine) following a long day working in the farm. He guides us to where Oscar and the generator are waiting, and we continue on our way.

The truck passes over a wide pool of water as we pull into the farm. The tires gently glide through the water, and Saul asks Steven the purpose.

“The water has discontaminant in it,” Steven responds. “You have to pass through it when you arrive and back through when you leave. Quite genius.”

We pull up next to a series of eight to ten small buildings, probably used as sleeping quarters for many of the local workers. Oscar and a few men are standing patiently with the generator for our arrival.

As Steven and Saul exit the truck to load the generator, I notice a group of workers standing in the distance dressing in rain jackets, about to head out into the farm. I walk up to them and attempt conversation in Portuguese. Fortunately for my language ability, the group only speaks the local language, Macua. I share with them the four or five phrases I do know, they all laugh, shake my hand, and I head back to the truck.

The generator is loaded, we say our greetings and goodbyes to Oscar and the other men, and we continue on our way. Steven stops the truck, flings his head out the window toward Oscar, and asks for a couple bananas. Oscar nods and says they’ll be someone along the road with bananas.

We pass the banana trees on the left, and the large bunches of bananas are green and hanging low on the trees. The workers are wrapping plastic bags around the bananas to prevent flies and other insects from getting to the fruit. Up ahead on the road is a man standing with an entire bunch of bananas above his head.

“How many can we take?” Steven asks of the man.

“All of them,” he responds, and drops the bunch in the back of the truck bed (photo included).

Steven and Saul respond with a hearty laugh and smile, thank the man, and we continue back through the cleaning waters of the wide pool and along the road back to Namapa.

Questions Turned Concerns
When I first arrived in Namapa and met Steven, I was quick to play the listening ear instead of the seasoned veteran of understanding (which I don’t and can’t pretend to be). Steven would talk about his time in Moz, thoughts on the people, and I would simply nod along, too afraid and naive to call into question his sometimes cynical and inconsistent views.

When it comes to the topic of race, the country seems to be divided among the groups who see hope for unison and the groups who choose to accept division as absolute. While I do not wish to associate with the latter, when do we as visiting volunteers, Americans, human beings, choose to surround ourselves with these people in order to educate, inform, motivate? And when do we simply choose to focus attention elsewhere?

Six months into site, I have consistent conversations with both Steven and Saul about their misguided understandings of the people of Moz. While I am also focused on my tasks as a PCV, the challenge of convincing these two men of absolute goodness and hope is too tempting to turn down.

Today, my voice is more vocal. My work in the community is more determined. Conversations with Steven and Saul are aggressive in nature and tend to fall more on ideas for growth, development, rather than cynicism and giving up. After all, isn’t hope all we really have?

As the lyrics of a friend’s favorite song go:

I know that I must do what’s right

Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become

Toto, “Africa”

Inaugural Address

It seems somewhat serendipitous that my first post falls on the same day as the swearing in of the new President, Filipe Nyusi, under the familiar Frelimo party. The ceremony is a national event with government organizations, businesses, and hospitals closing their doors to watch as the newly elected president takes office. Fellow health volunteers from around the country are writing online of arriving for work at the hospital only to find staff and administration limited to a few personnel while patients wait for treatment.

The ceremony follows a highly contested election among the already reigning party, Frelimo, and its primary opposition, Renamo and Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM) (Bloomberg). While the Renamo party still argues that the election wasn’t fairly organized or implemented, the votes were cast and counted with Frelimo winning the majority of the votes with higher percentages in the southern part of the country than the north. Now begins another term under the Frelimo party just as the infrastructure of the country is called into question with massive flood damage, loss of life, and thousands displaced because of collapsed bridges and destroyed homes (BBC).

A Flood of Information

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I am writing this entry from a packed bar in my community of Namapa, a medium-sized town in the northern part of Nampula province near the border of the province of Cabo Delgado and built along the main stretch of highway that connects the north to the south. The bar is filled with people at 10:30 a.m. to not only watch the coverage of the ongoing inauguration ceremony in the south, but also because for the past three days the entire northern half of the country has been without power due to the floods. The bar owner offers the electricity from his diesel-powered generator for community members to charge their telephones and get updates on the status of the rest of the country.

Stories about the damage are pouring in from around the country through news outlets, social media, and conversations with close friends who are either witnessing the damage first hand or hearing from other volunteers about being stranded due to collapsed bridges. Some of the more devastating stories are coming from the town of Mocuba in the Zambezia province, where a collapsed bridge led locals to attempt to swim across the river. A fellow volunteer who was visiting the area called to recount the sight of the bridge disintegrating under the river. Displaced persons are interviewed on the local news and speak about moving forward, rebuilding, and preventing future events.

Progress & Development in a Developing Country

The country of Mozambique is gorgeous with its lush landscape, miles of beaches along the Indian Ocean, and architecture from both the time before independence and the time after. The country gained independence in 1975 and is still in the process of developing its infrastructure, growing its economy, and planning for the future. One of the ways in which the country is looking forward is through partnerships with international organizations, including the Peace Corps, for which I currently serve as a health volunteer.

I arrived in Mozambique at the beginning of June, 2014, and was placed at my permanent site at the beginning of August of the same year. The organization for which I’ve been serving is ICAP, an international non-governmental organization out of Columbia University dedicated “to improve the health of families and communities.” As the first health volunteer to be placed at my site, expectations were both inexplicably high as well as a tad off base. Basically, the local staff at the hospital had no idea what to do with me. What is a health volunteer? Luckily, following a two-year degree in public health, my personal direction was established ahead of time, and I was able to share these directions with my team.

For the past six months at site, I’ve been completing a community needs assessment (CNA) to study the community, collect data on demographics, beliefs, and health issues, and develop a list of recommendations both for community activities that can be implemented immediately and future research to be completed by my host organization or a future volunteer. While I won’t go into great detail about the specifics here (I’ll post the results once I’m able to get a few fresh eyes on it to correct it for grammar, inconsistencies, etc.), I can list the top three things I learned from completing a CNA in Mozambique:

  • Projects and ideas can move at an unbearably slow pace if you don’t push the conversation each day with supervisors, staff, and the community
  • While rumors and inconsistencies exist regarding health and prevention in the country, the majority of people in my community are able to identify the most severe health issues (malaria, HIV/AIDS, etc.) and the general symptoms
  • There are countless questions regarding why patients abandon treatment, why people aren’t properly using mosquito nets, etc., and usually the group that has the answers to these questions is the one we often forget to ask: the community.

Moving Forward

As Nyusi takes office and starts to look ahead at future projects and ways to improve the country, health volunteers hope and ask that he and his administration look to the community first for answers before looking elsewhere. During my conversations with the community regarding health, countless ideas were shared about rebuilding the infrastructure of the country, promoting and emphasizing education, and eliminating government corruption from the top down. The people want improvements. It’s clear.

The country is currently broken because of the flooding throughout the country. Thousands of citizens are displaced and in the process of rebuilding their lives. Millions of people are currently without power and without much transparency about the reasons and expected solutions. On the first day of a new presidency, the country looks to him for solutions. As Peace Corps volunteers, while we will also look to him for future solutions, we continue to direct our attention toward the community and its members where real action thrives.

Questions? Contact me!

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